I had the pleasure of going along to a BFI Member's exclusive screening of Alan Parker's Screen Epiphany Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)and in his introduction he compared the lead toff/bully Rowntree to David Cameron. It is certainly a film that holds relevance today when our political leaders all come from the same background of privilege and want to enforce the hierarchy/status quo and revolutions instigated by young people are taking place around the world.
UK is, right now, in Mick Travis' place, being forced into taking a cold shower before the brutal paddling for insubordination begins in earnest. The drastic cuts and austerity measures we're being forced to swallow appear to me to be collective punishment for not accepting the status quo, for not forgiving the expenses scandal and the financial quagmire our political elite helped get us into and of course for forcing a hung parliament. I get a chill whenever Cameron or one of his lackeys talks about discipline in schools when the millionaires who sit on the benches in the house of "commons" act jeer and howl like feral jackals.
Anyway back to the film. It's usual to say that a film feels like a cliché when after time you have just forgotten (or weren't around to notice) that it invented the cliché in the first place. The satire is really sharp and often quite funny. However there is something about the film that disappoints. The sequences which are more surreal surprise at first, giving a glimpse at the world outside the bubble of the school where sexual, political and cultural liberation was breaking into the mainstream. However this break from the reality of the school undermines the final sequence's violence as nothing more than a boyish revenge fantasy; the 'if' of the title.
Parker insinuated that the use of occasional black and white footage was more or a practical decision than a purely stylistic one and I'm inclined to agree as it doesn't bring much to experience. For an artful use of black and white there's no better example than A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
I generally enjoy witnessing the fantastic mixing with the mundane, but I can't help but feel that there wasn't any need to venture so far when the premise provides many less than mundane avenues of interest. Apart from Malcolm McDowell's simmering Mick Travis and Robert Swann's cruel Rowntree the most interesting characters are the underused adults. Peter Jeffrey's Headmaster gets a fair crack at the whip, but Dad's Army's Captain Mainwaring Arthur Lowe and Waiting for God's Graham Crowden get short shrift.
If.... lacks focus and too many story elements get started and then dropped, most notably the first young school boy 'scum' we're introduced to gets sidelined in favour of a feminine looking contemporary with a homoerotic subtext, and the new teacher at the school arrives and is packed off to an attic never to be brought to the fore again. At 111 minutes it lacks a tautness it could have benefited from but nonetheless it is 111 minutes packed with invention and creative flourishes that are hallmarks of the Free Cinema movement of which Anderson was a founder, albeit in a fictional and fantastical narrative setting.
I was very glad to see the film on a big screen as I think I would have been underwhelmed by the scale of its ambition on a small screen. However I feel that while it achieves many of its ambitions the film as a whole has lost the power to shock that it might once have had. The real impact of the film is its impressionistic commentary on the revolutionary spirit which has always failed to take hold of the public imagination in England in the way it had in the places featured in the pictures cut from the pages of Paris Match that collage the walls of Travis' den.
If you liked this you might like: Gus Van Sant's excellent and meticulous depiction of a high school shooting Elephant (2003) or for a good mix of fantasy, class divide, choral music and gun toting schoolboys check out the excellent Doctor Who episodes Human Nature / The Family of Blood:
Question of the week: Can you think of any other films that use a mix of black and white and colour photography to interesting effect?